Seduced By A Gangster
Alex chewed hard on his lip-ring as he stood defiantly in front of the judge. He had been caught red-handed – literally, and the resulting 14-month jail sentence kicked him hard in the guts. New Zealand’s strict stance on against graffiti means that jail time alone is not a severe enough punishment for Alex – his reputation will also take a public beating. As a result of his conviction, the newspaper depicts Alex as a pot-smoking evildoer, the scum between the toes of society, and ultimately, a prison-deserving criminal. He was 22.
Alex’s mugshot stares out at me from the paper and I vaguely remember him from some high school house parties. He always seemed to be lurking with his mate Rocky behind a veil of smoke. Rocky went to my school too, not that I actually ever saw him there.
I’m sitting, utterly bored in the Sydney transit lounge, I receive a message out of the blue from Rocky, conveniently offering me a ride from Denpasar airport plus his room to sleep in. He must have seen my Facebook status bragging about my solo trip to Bali. I regret the post immediately and I don’t want to stay with him. Everyone I know thinks he’s a sleazy low-life, and the fact that his mate is a jailbird junkie makes their claims hard to dismiss. How are we even FB friends in the first place? And is it weird that he feels the need to mention that I’d have to be OK with sharing his bed?
Rational thinking dissipates as a toxic duo of jetlag and the convenience of free accommodation circle dangerously around my sleep-deprived brain. My fingers take the gamble and type: Wow thanks, I land at midnight, see ya then. I wonder if I’m hearing alarm bells in my head or if it’s just the sound of the boarding call. I decide I’ll stay one night with Rocky, and then be on my way. After all, I’ve done my dash with bad boys – I know what these seedy dudes are like.
The next morning I wake up beside Rocky to the sound of crowing roosters and hens clucking happily outside. We’re in his one-room homestay on the outskirts of Canggu . “Where’s your favourite place for breakfast?” I ask sleepy-faced Rocky, “I’ll shout ya”. The sun attacks and we attempt to hide from the sweltering heat at Rojo’s Cafe where Rocky orders us both his Indo favourite – gado-gado and es teh. We chomp, chat, and slurp in unison, and as the fifteen hundredth scooter zooms past (so about five minutes later), Rocky reveals that he lives here in Bali so he can paint walls without suffering the same fate as his mate back home – Alex. I tense as I hear his name said out loud, but it’s nothing compared to the shock of Rocky’s next bombshell; he is in a gang – a graffiti gang – and right now he wants to show me something.
Obviously it’s unwise to say “no” to a gangster’s face, so trying to erase all figments of fear, I hop on the back of his scooter and we fly through the clove-scented streets of Canggu. Rows of cramped square shopfronts transform into lush rice-paddy fields and frangipani trees as we speed steadily away from the cafe. My body crashes against Rocky’s toned frame as we come to a stop. Nearing the scraggly trail’s dead-end, I see it. A fragmented mass of concrete slabs rise high above the ground, blocking out the sun and casting shadows so dark that my fears of gang-related death drown instantly in its beautiful inky blackness. Mesmerised, I follow Rocky silently into the belly of this cold cement construction site. He hands me a spraycan and the cheeky smile on his tanned face says it all – he wants me to paint. Having never held a spraycan to a wall in my life, I feel nervous, but my performance anxiety floats away with swirls of dust, propellant fumes and paint droplets in shafts of sunlight as Rocky gently adjusts my angles and chats happily while painting a large piece of his own.
Our technicolor world shatters as the sound of angry engines tear apart the stillness. I peek timidly and see about 10 bikers hurtling down the track; they stop in perfect formation, dismount their bikes and head purposefully towards us. Oh, Fuck! We’re about to get done. It’s gonna be my mugshot in the paper! Panicking hard, I turn to Rocky for help but I deduce that he’s frozen from fear because his typical grin remains as fixed on his face as ever.
“Come on,” he laughs, “let’s go meet the gang.” I walk outside with Rocky and get shot dead with a round of the brightest friendliest smiles. I begin to process what Rocky was saying over breakfast – that graffiti here is regarded (more or less) as an art rather than a crime. Time passes as the ksshhh-kshhhh-kshhh of spray cans whispers between us and slowly we bring this dead building into a colourful new life.
One night with Rocky turned into a month. Like a dodgy dealer he offered me pieces of his world hit by hit until I was irrevocably hooked. Tagging along with Rocky and the gang had me falling in love with their ways. As we chowed through Bintangs, cigarettes and countless cans of paint, I learned that gold tops aren’t magic mushrooms, that Banksy is a fraud (see Blek Le Rat), “getting up” isn’t about mornings, and train spotting has nothing to do with heroin or Scotland. I learned that mistaking these graff artists for “street artists” was a heinous infliction upon their non-commercial intents. And I also learned that being the amateur in the group means that your caps and cans are communal property.
I also learned not to flinch at Alex’s name; turns out he was just a typical fun loving dude who was loyal to his mates and had too much talent and inspired energy to sit at home confined to felt-tip pens and a dank $2 sketchbook. An unsettling sadness, heavy with embarrassment, fills up my insides upon the realisation of how wrongly I had judged him. Alex was in the wrong place at the wrong time; if he were a Melburnian he’d be probably be considered a hipster and surrounded by a flock of status seeking birds. If he were in Bali, he’d be part of the gang, he’d be sinking rooftop Bintangs with Rocky and I as the sun set. Actually he’d potentially even be feeling like the third-wheel now that Rocky is my boyfriend – I had judged them both very wrongly.
Although Alex is out of prison now, his reputation still remains in tatters. Alex’s crime was art – far less judgmental and pretentious than the ones committed by me.
*Names have been changed.